|Trinity Standard - Local News
Stories Added - October 2008
Copyright 2008 - Polk County Publishing Company
County sets 62 cent tax rate
Trinity Standard - October 2008
GROVETON – After about two dozen people appeared to challenge the need for a tax increase, Trinity County commissioners voted to set a higher tax rate and adopt a new $5.1 million budget.
During the special meeting Friday, Sept. 26, the commissioners unanimously approved the new tax rate of 62 cents per $100 in assessed value. This is up from last year’s rate of 58.5 cents and up from the “effective tax rate” of 54.95 cents.
The effective rate is generally the rate the county would need to generate the same amount of income as the year before.
Included in the new 62 cent tax rate is 3.51 cents earmarked as the “debt rate” which will be used to repay the $1.6 million loan taken out earlier this year to help finance the renovation of the Trinity County Courthouse.
The loan was in the form of $1.6 million in certificates of obligation issued by the county. This money will serve as the local match for a $5 million grant awarded by the Texas Historical Commission for the courthouse preservation project.
The remainder of the new rate – 58.49 cents – will go into the general fund and road and bridge fund to pay for the operation of the county government.
During the public hearing held on the budget, County Judge Mark Evans noted the new tax rate would raise taxes on a $100,000 home by about $35 from the 58.5 cent 2008 tax rate.
It also was noted the county has a “tax freeze” in place for homeowners who are 65 years old or over and who apply for the exemption. Once the freeze is granted, senior citizens will pay the same dollar amount in taxes each year on their homesteads regardless of any increase in the appraised value or tax rate.
The only change in how much they would pay would come if they made improvements to the property – such as building a garage or adding on a room.
The fiscal year 2009 budget, which went into effect on Wednesday, Oct. 1, is up by over $661,000 from the FY 2008 budget.
Included in the FY 2009 spending plan is:
• an additional $100,000 for the Trinity County Sheriff’s Department, including one new officer and a restructuring of the staff to include two investigators and a jail administrator;
• about $150,000 to pay the first year’s note on the $1.6 million borrowed for the courthouse renovation project;
• $82,000 to cover the rent for county office space while the courthouse is being renovated;
• an across-the-board 5% salary increase for all county employees, except those in the sheriff’s department; and
• an 8% salary increase for all employees in the sheriff’s department, including deputies, dispatchers and jailers.
The largest change on the income side of the budget will be in local property taxes. The 62 cent tax rate is expected to generate more than $2.9 million, up by more than $540,000 from the $2.4 million generated by the 2008 tax rate of 58.5 cents
Evans noted $253,000 of the increased tax income would be generated by “new property” which was added to the tax role over the past year.
Other increases in income expected during the coming year includes an additional $25,000 in combined fines generated through the four justice of the peace courts; an additional $25,000 in delinquent taxes and “penalty and interest” payments on those taxes; an addition $10,000 in county clerk fees; and an additional $5,000 in fees each from the district clerk and the tax assessor-collection offices.
While Evans noted the increase in fines and fees were projections of what might happen, he told those present for the hearing that they were based on historical trends. He added he was reasonably confident the budgeted income would be realized during the course of the year.
After holding two public hearings on the proposed 62 cent tax rate, commissioners conducted one Friday on the $5.1 million FY 2009 budget.
James “Sparky” Warren of Trinity told commissions the increase in property taxes to support the budget was coming at a time when inflation and a drop in housing sales was already causing economic problems.
“The value of the dollar is going down everyday and housing sales are at a 17-year low. This has got to stop somewhere,” he told commissioners.
Virginia Johnson of Sebastopol noted that the four justices of the peace are granted only part-time held in the 2009 budget.
“The JP courts are so back-logged that they can’t get caught up,” she said, and asked if the county couldn’t provide full-time clerks to help out.
“Over the past several years we have been trying to provide more help to the JPs,” Evans said. “When I came into office, the JPs didn’t have any clerical help.”
He said the county first obtained part-time workers for the JPs through the Senior Texas Employment Program (STEP), which provided them with help 20 hours per week.
“This year its 30 hours per week at $8 per hour,” he said.
When asked why more hours weren’t provided, Evans noted that the county’s “cut off” for providing health insurance benefits was 30 hours. Employees who work 31 or more hours must receive the insurance benefit, and Evans indicated that providing that benefit to four JP clerks would cost the county an additional $25,000 to $30,000 per year.
Another question involving the vehicle allowance given to county commissioners was raised by Vicky Ward of Trinity Cove.
Pct. 1 Commissioner Grover “Tiger” Worsham explained that his $18,000 per year allowance is subject to taxes and withholding and when all the deductions are made, he gets about $11,000.
He provides his own vehicle and pays for gasoline, insurance and maintenance out of that allowance
Worsham noted that in the past, the county provided commissioners with county vehicles but liability issues that arose from problems in other counties caused commissioners to reconsider that policy and shift to the current allowance system.
“When it’s all said and done, the way we’re doing it is actually costing me money and if it weren’t for the liability issues, I would suggest going back to the old system,” Worsham said.
Ward also raised the issue of contract jail space and asked why the county would be spending $295,000 next year to house prisoners outside the county.
Evans said the problem faced by the county is that under state regulations, the current Trinity County Jail can only house seven inmates.
“If we go over that number for any length of time, we run the risk of having the state decertify the jail and we’d have to send all of our prisoners to other jails,” he said.
“The only alternative would be to build a new jail,” the judge said, adding that the cost for such a project would run $6 million or more.
“I don’t have a problem with raising my taxes 3 cents or 6 cents as long as I see some improvements,” Ward said. “Right now we’re sending all this (contract jail space) money to Falls County and it could be used here.”
“Do you think there would be public support to build a $6 million jail?” Evans asked.
“I’d be willing to work on it,” Ward said.
Lynn Hill also questioned the need for a $256,000 contingency fund in the $6.6 million courthouse restoration project.
“Is this good business?” he asked.
Evans noted that the contingency fund is required by the Texas Historical Commission.
“If they are going to spend $5 million, they want to be sure the project is completed,” Evans explained.
It was noted that in a project as large as the courthouse renovation, unexpected costs always arise as unanticipated problems occur. Evans noted the contingency fund is designed to help cover those costs.
The judge added that any money not spent, including any interest generated by the $1.6 million borrowed by the county, would be used to pay off the certificates of obligation.
Hill also questioned the need for $15,000 and $10,000 “miscellaneous” line items located in the Precinct 1 and Precinct 2 road and bridge funds, respectively.
He asked if the funds indicated the two precincts had more money than they knew what to do with, but was assured by the two commissioners the money was needed.
Both Worsham and Pct. 3 Commissioner Cecil Webb indicated they were just not sure where it would be needed during the course of the year. They indicated the rising cost of fuel combined with the cost of road materials and extra help would be funded from the miscellaneous line item
“I just don’t know where it will be spent right now,” Worsham said.
“That is one of the problems,” Hill said. “You throw around numbers -- $18,000, $20,000 – as if it was pocket change.”
Hill said taxpayers don’t have the option of increasing their income and must pay their bill from the “same pocket” as they did the year before.
Another speaker, Larry Mahler, argued that more emphasis should be paid to the needs of the offices which generate money for the county, such as the four precinct JP offices.
He argued that $13,000 added to the budget to give County Auditor Sheila Johnson a part time person in addition to her current full-time assistant would be better spent giving the JPs full-time help.
Evans noted that under Texas law, the auditor is hired by and works for the two district judges who currently service Trinity County – 411th District Judge Robert Hill Trapp and 258th District Judge Elizabeth Coker.
The salary of the auditor and that office’s budget is set by the district judges.
“There is no need to rubber stamp the auditor’s budget,” Mahler said. “Force them (the judges) to impose it.”
He also said the four commissioners and county judge should have declined their pay raise this year.